The Battle of the Steves is set for the November general election as incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines will square off against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in the race for U.S. Senate.
The Associated Press called Daines and Bullock the winners of their respective primaries within a half-hour of the polls closing at 8 p.m.
Bullock, who is termed out from the governor's office, ended his long-shot bid for president in late December. During that campaign and immediately after, he swore off a Senate run both adamantly and repeatedly even as Democrats in Montana and nationally, seeing him as the party's best chance, urged him to challenge Daines.
On March 9, the deadline to file to get on the primary ballot, Bullock and his family made the walk from the east to west end of the state Capitol to join the race. All but one of the other five Democrats who were running dropped out, leaving Loma rancher John Mues.
"While we have managed to accomplish so much for Montana, the Senate has been held captive by special interests and petty partisan politics," Bullock said in a statement after his primary win. "As Montana expanded health care, Washington tried to gut protections for people with pre-existing health conditions. As Montana banned dark money, Washington made it easier for dark money groups to hide their donors. And as we balanced our budget, Washington let the deficit skyrocket while giving billions of dollars in handouts to corporate interests and pharmaceutical companies."
"The message I've talked about since I first ran for the House (in 2012) is more jobs and less government," Daines said of his primary win. "That message continues to resonate. I'm grateful for the support and look forward to the election in November."
The Green Party primary featured candidates Wendie Fredrickson, of Helena, and Dennis Daneke, of Lolo. Fredrickson was leading with 68% of the vote to Daneke's 32% late Tuesday.
The Green Party qualified to get on the ballot this year in an effort financed by the Montana Republican Party. While Fredrickson has been critical of Bullock, under whom she worked as an auditor in the state health department, Daneke has said Fredrickson is not a true Green Party member and has hinted that he may drop out of the race if he wins the primary.
On the Libertarian side, Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Susan Good Geise, former chair of the Montana Republican Party, was named as a replacement for a previous candidate who dropped out, Eric Fulton of Bozeman. Fulton had run as a Republican in a legislative race before. But Good Geise also dropped out, saying she needed to focus on being a county commissioner during the pandemic. The state Libertarian Party has until Aug. 19 to name a replacement.
Prepping for Bullock's entrance to the race, Daines amassed a campaign war chest in the millions, though he's lagged behind Bullock's fundraising since the governor announced his candidacy.
Bullock has brought in $5.8 million since March 9, while Daines, who has been campaigning much longer, has raised $9.3 million over the election.
Daines reported $5.7 million cash on hand in the last campaign finance report, to Bullock's $4.1 million in the bank.
Both candidates predicted a race dramatically colored by the coronavirus pandemic.
"It will be an election like nobody's ever seen before," Daines said. "The campaigns are taking a different kind of form. We have focused primarily on helping Montanans, because with the COVID pandemic and the economic crisis, we're spending all of our time focused on the crisis. It remains to be seen what the campaigns will actually look like, but we've got to stay focused on the job."
Bullock said the pandemic is part of the reason he's running for the Senate.
"And now, in the midst of this extraordinary crisis, Washington is more focused on shifting blame than seeking solutions. I’m running for the Senate to do away with partisan politics and do what is right for the American people. I’m running for the Senate to make Washington work more like Montana."
And even with the dramatic shift in the nature of the election, neither candidate thought it would lessen the onslaught of advertising and effort aimed at swaying voters.
"There's no doubt, this will be one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, Senate race in the history of Montana," Daines said.
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